In an October, 2012 decision, Kings County Civil Court Judge Harriet Thompson, in Matter of Kobra (Hossain), denied on cultural grounds the applications of a mother, Tamannatul Kobra, to change the names of her children: four and nine-year-old females. The two petitions were supported by the consent the girls’ father, Mosharaf Hossain (Ms. Kobra’s husband).
The mother sought to remove the name “Hossain” (or Hossian) because because of its association with Muslims.
Ironically, in January, 2009, Kings County Civil Court Judge Dawn Jiminez-Salta had granted an application by Mr. Hossain, on consent of his wife, to add “Hossain” to the name of his older daughter (then six). Judge Jiminez was satisfied that the interest of the child was substantially promoted by the infant child assuming the surname of her biological father.
Here, the mother sought to again change her nine-year-old daughter’s name; this time to a completely different name: from Siratul Muntaha Hossain to Oporajita Neeladri. The child would not bear any surname that would identify her with either parent. The mother also sought to change the younger child’s name from Heemika Hossian to Himika Himadri. Under the parents’ plan, neither child would have any name that would identify her as a child of either parent-not the surname of either parent, nor any name that would identify them as relatives or even sisters for that matter.
The mother asserted that in Bangladesh and India, it is customary for everyone in “a typical household” to have completely different names. Nevertheless, Judge Thompson noted that both of these children were American-born citizens and have adapted, embraced and are a part of our American culture.
Applying the American cultural norm, Judge Thompson found that “sharing the surname by the child with the parent she or he lives with is a legitimate point of concern because it minimizes embarrassment, harassment and confusion in school and social contacts.”
This court will not deviate from that which is deeply rooted in the American Diaspora which definitively supports our social customs and long standing accepted practices in New York as well as many other states for family members to share in one of the custodian’s parents name.
This common practice is to alleviate confusion in the child’s day to day life and obviate the need to explain to school administrators and teachers, doctors, insurance companies and government agencies why the children have completely different names from their parents and from each other.
Judge Thompson noted that under common (non-statutory) law, courts have recognized the right of any individual to change his or her name, at will and without legal process, provided that the change is not made to deceive or perpetuate a fraud on third parties.
The enactment of New York’s Civil Rights Law §§60 and 63 established a statutory and procedural framework for both adults and infants (by a parent or guardian) to petition the court to change their names. This statutory method allows the name change to be place in public records.
For minors, Civil Rights Law §63 requires the court to insure that “the interests of the infant will be substantially promoted by the change.” A court is duty bound to examine all the facts, including the reasons expressed for the proposed name change.
While it is generally acknowledged that a child’s parents are better judges than the courts to determine what is in the best interests of their children, Judge Thompson noted that courts will not abdicate their role to insure the best interests of the child.
Judge Thompson noted that Judge Straniere, after analyzing religious history, public perception and the constitutional mandate of the separation of church and state, had properly denied the petition of an intact family (including a minor daughter over the age of 15) to change their surnames to “ChristIsKing.” (Apparently, courts of New York and North Carolina had denied prior efforts to change the first name of the then minor son of the parties from Jeremy to “JesusIsLord,” although the State of Virginia may have granted that relief as well as allowing the name change of the minor daughter to “Rejoice.”)
Judge Straniere first noted the appreciable post 9/11 increase in the number of statutory name change filings, as opposed to mere reliance upon common law principles:
Security concerns now require consistency between a person’s name on a birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, marriage licenses, social security cards and other common everyday forms of identification issued by various levels of government. As a practical matter this need for conformity has reduced the adoption of a new name through common law usage and practice to an almost useless exercise requiring the courts to intervene to conform discrepancies between all of these different documents rather than allowing a person to adopt a new name solely through custom and habit. Perhaps this issue should be addressed by the legislature.
However, Judge Straniere found the name change proposed to him to be culturally offensive:
To permit this name change would be placing unwitting members of the public including public servants in the position of having to proclaim petitioners’ religious beliefs which may or may not be in agreement with that person’s own equally strongly held but different beliefs.
For instance, a calendar call in the courthouse would require the clerk to shout out “JesusIsLord ChristIsKing” or “Rejoice ChristIsKing.” Other litigants would not necessarily know whether the clerk was reading the calendar or making some religious statement in violation of the separation of church and state. A similar situation would occur in the classroom setting. Not only is the speaker being forced to say something which might be repugnant to the speaker but the general public would be subjected to this unwanted intrusion of the petitioners’ religious beliefs. What would be people’s reaction to hear the petitioners’ being paged at an airport or some other public event? Common sense tells us that more people call us by our name on a daily basis than we refer to ourselves. The number of people who refer to themselves in the third person on a regular basis is limited.
. . . .
What petitioners are advocating is a name that is a statement that a particular person is “Lord” or is the “King.” This is a position which is not only offensive to persons who are not Christians4 but also to those who look to God a being gender neutral and not a male figure. . . .
Judge Straniere went on:
There is another issue petitioners’ proposed name raises and that is, would a person announcing it be committing “blasphemy?” . . .
At the hearing the court asked the petitioners what would happen if they did something that was viewed as being unethical or not in the teachings of Jesus, would they not be demeaning Jesus’ name and weakening the validity of their message?
The adult child indicated he wanted to play basketball in college. The court asked what would be the reaction if a newspaper headline read “JesusIsLord ChristIsKing” misses shot to cost team championship would that not reflect poorly on a name he took to honor. He and his family members believed it would not be a problem. This again leads to the conclusion that they are not thinking as to how other people will view their name.
In Kobra, in a teary-eyed and uncontrolled emotional appeal to Judge Thompson, the mother claimed that she was desperate to change the names of her children because the neighborhood children laughed at them and made fun of them because their surname is commonly referred used by Muslims. Ms. Kobra did “not like the name” her daughters.
Judge Thompson challenged the truthfulness of Ms. Kobra’s motives. The mother had proffered three completely different explanations for the request to change the names of her children. This Court did not find the mother credible or trustworthy. For the Court, the proffered explanations for the name changes were disingenuous, leaving the Court only to speculate as the actual reason for the name change. The reason appeared to Judge Thompson to be to deceive or perpetuate a fraud on some third parties and to avoid legal obligations. Such is condemned by the courts.
Moreover, even if it were true that the children were made fun of because their surname is “Hossain”, Judge Thomspon stated that such a claim is not a legal or factual basis to change the names of her children.
Judge Thompson could only imagine the confusion and hardship that these children would have as they grow older and interact with other children and others if this petition were granted.
In the current climate in this state and the nation where children harass each other, both physically and mentally, and bully each other in person and in cyberspace, it is the view of this court that this proposed name change will make the lives of these young girls absolutely miserable and unreasonably venerable to all kinds of probing questions, embarrassment, ridicule, and humiliation.
For the older daughter, Judge Thomspon expressed even greater concern. She has been in school for the three years since her prior name change. She is now known by her friends, teachers, classmates, doctors, dentists and other professionals as Siratul Muntaha Hossain.
The first name change was reasonable under those circumstances which only added the surname of her biological father and was approved by the court. . . . More importantly, this young girl has a vested interest in her present name.At this influential pre-teen stage of her personal and social development, it is crucial for her to have stability and to maintain a strong self-identity. To change her name now will cause her harm that is truly immeasurable.
Therefore, Judge Thompson concluded that the name change did not promote the best interests of the children and denied the applications with prejudice. Judge Thompson noted that each child, after reaching age 18, could make her own application in the exercise of her own discretion and judgment.
For another look at this area, the April 21, 2011 post discussed the Second Department decision in Matter of Eberhardt that, over the objections of the father, allowed a mother to create a hyphenated surname for her daughter by adding the mother’s surname in front of the surname of the father.